This article was first published in Summer Getaways, an annual magazine from The Denver Post focused on outdoor recreation. Find more Summer Getaways here >>>
It’s often said that to truly experience Colorado’s wilderness, you need an overnight backpack and a lot of time on your hands. Or, if you’re in good shape and just a little bit insane, you can try one of these routes as an extreme day hike.
These are trails that will take your breath away — figuratively and literally — as you climb, climb and climb some more into the Rocky Mountains. You may question your judgment. Your legs may scream at you to turn around. But get up early and take one of these extreme hikes and you’ll have accomplished a crazy feat to tell your friends about over a cold beverage — assuming you can walk the next day.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Roundtrip: 14.5 miles
Elevation gain: 5,100 feet
The towering sentinel of Longs Peak is the undisputed king of the northern Front Range, visible from downtown Denver to Fort Collins. The trail to the top of this 14,255-foot mountain is staggeringly difficult and accounts for more failed summit attempts than most other 14ers, according to the National Park Service. You switchback endlessly through pine forests. You ascend the rolling tundra. You pick your way through the boulder field. You rock-hop above a perilously steep cliff. And you’re still not even close to the top. All the while, the dangerous afternoon thunderstorms build menacingly above. It’s one of those hikes that if you start at 4 a.m., you started too late.
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
Roundtrip: 12.2 miles
Elevation gain: 3,600 feet
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado are full of gorgeous alpine lakes. But most are in-and-back hikes, owing to the steep topography of the area. This rare loop takes you past two pretty lakes and over a dizzying ledge known as the Phantom Terrace. Most people do this loop as an overnight trip, camping at either Comanche or Venable lake, but with an early start you can see it all in a day. Most hike it counter-clockwise, ascending the Venable Creek drainage.
Sneffels Highline Trail
Uncompahgre National Forest
Roundtrip: 13 miles
Elevation gain: 3,520 feet
Why is everyone in Telluride in such great shape? One answer is this grueling trail, a local favorite that starts right in town. From the Jud Wiebe Trailhead turn right after a half-mile onto the loop, which most people hike counter-clockwise. You ascend meadows blooming with wildflowers and dotted with mining ruins. Be sure to stop and take in the views of the mountains known as the American alps. The loop turns west and then south as you gradually descend through aspen forests and closer to Telluride, where hopefully a beer and cheeseburger await to reward you for the effort.
Indian Peaks Wilderness
Roundtrip: 14.8 miles
Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
You may have seen the image on Instagram: the imposing cone of Lone Eagle Peak towering over glassy waters of an alpine lake. The sight’s all the more impressive because of the difficulty of reaching this spot, which isn’t too far from Denver but feels like a world away. Starting at Monarch Lake near Granby, hike up the Cascade Creek Trail, pausing to enjoy the many waterfalls. Pass through scenic meadows and reach Mirror Lake after 7.2 miles. Be sure to take some photos of the aforementioned mountain vista. If it’s not too late in the day walk around the lake another .2 miles to Crater Lake. Return the way you came. This is also a fine area for overnight camping, though permits are required in the summer months due to heavy use.
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Eagles Nest Wilderness
Elevation gain: 3,200 feet
You probably know the Gore Range as the jagged peaks that dominate the view from the front side of Vail ski area. The trailhead, in fact, is right in town. But make this grueling march to a stunning lake and you’ll forget Interstate 70 isn’t too far away. The trailhead is in East Vail on Bighorn Road just east of town. The trail follows Gore Creek for 4 easy miles and you might be wondering why the trail is on this list. Then the real fun begins. Turn left at an old settler’s cabin and head unrelentingly upward, 1,200 feet in less than 2 miles that will have you wishing the lake is around every curve and cursing when it’s not. Don’t worry – it’s worth it. Spend some time walking around this amazing lake, flanked by jagged spires, then return the way you came.
Lost Creek Wilderness
Roundtrip: 12.2 miles
Elevation gain: 3,600 feet
Lost Creek Wilderness is a huge swath of verdant hills and bizarre rock formations less than a 90-minute drive from Denver or Colorado Springs. The high point is Bison Peak. Though not high by Colorado standards, 12,431 feet, it’s harder to summit than many 14ers, owing to the low elevation of the starting point. From the Ute Creek Trailhead, off Colorado 77 south of Tarryall Reservoir, the trail is pleasant for the first few miles as it rises gently through Ponderosa pine forests. The unpleasantness starts as it climbs to Bison Pass. Turn right onto the Brookside-McCurdy Trail as it rises above timberline. Bison Peak is the collection of twisted rocks and massive boulders on your left. Leave the trail and keep going uphill until there’s no more uphill. The views of Pikes Peak and the Front Range mountains are sublime. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself. Return the way you came.
Pike National Forest
Roundtrip: 5 miles
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
This is a trail only in the sense that people walk up it and it’s in the woods. It’s actually an old railway track above Manitou Springs that has become a workout destination for fitness buffs from all over. “Steep” doesn’t quite do it justice. It gains 2,000 feet in 1 mile, with a staggering 68% grade at its most brutal point. It starts near the Cog Railway station (don’t even think about using their parking lot, however). You may want to take the free shuttle from 10 Old Man’s Trail near downtown or in a free spot along Manitou Avenue. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay to park closer to the trailhead. Once you’re at the trailhead, just step up 2,744 times on the old and new railroad ties. Enjoy the view and elation at the top and return via Barr Trail, a longer but much less steep route.
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
Roundtrip: 28 miles
Elevation gain: 8,000 feet
The scenery is extremely gorgeous on this loop that makes a giant ring around Colorado’s famous Maroon Bells. Most mere mortals do it in two, three or even four days, but trail runners in top shape can do it in one very long day. Starting at Maroon Lake (perhaps the most-photographed spot in Colorado) it’s an easy stretch to Crater Lake, where real challenge begins. The ascent high into the Elk Mountains is easier if done clockwise, so turn left and run up to 12,500-foot West Maroon Pass. Catch your breath, then pass through the tundra and head up to Frigid Air Pass, where the backside of the Bells form an imposing backdrop. There’s no time for rest so keep your speed up for the easy descent through Fravert Basin. Then turn right and begin the grueling ascent over Trail Rider Pass and down to Snowmass Lake. Finally, continue past the lake for the final climb up Buckskin Pass. It’s all downhill from here so take a break and enjoy the view. Note: This loop involves numerous creek crossings that could be dangerous during the melt-off.
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